Educational Technology & Society 2(4) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

Collective Representations and Educational Technology as School Reform: Or, How Not to Produce a Cargo Cult

Sara Dexter
Instructional Systems & Technology program, Department of Curriculum & Instruction
Research Associate, Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement
College of Education and Human Development,
University of Minnesota, 159 Pillsbury Drive S. E.
Minneapolis, MN 55455-0208 USA
Tel: (1)-612-626-7261
Fax: (1)-612-625-3086


How individual teachers interpret innovations that are introduced into their culture is mediated by the social organization of schools and their larger district setting. While innovations are rapidly introduced in the educational world, they do not always take hold. Educational technology is an innovation that is of high interest and priority for schools. Because technology is expensive and offers some promising possibilities for K-12 education, it is important to understand how technology is accommodated into teachers’ pedagogy. This article turns to Durkheim's conception of culture to understand problems in adopting educational technology as an innovation to school culture. Durkheim's work provides helpful insights into how and where culture influences the implementation process, reminding us to take culture and context into account. Cargo cults are presented as a conceptual metaphor of how cultural understandings can result in completely ineffective means applied toward an end, providing a generative image for examining school culture and its impact on school change and explaining why ubiquitous technology use often proves elusive.

Keywords: School culture, Educational technology, School change

What, I asked, is the purpose of this airstrip? To fly in your cargo and ours, came the embarrassed reply. It eventuated that the expected cargo consisted of tinned meat, bags of rice, steel tools, cotton cloth, tinned tobacco, and a machine for making electric light. It would come from God in Heaven. The people had waited for it for years but did not know the correct procedures for getting it. This was obviously going to change. They now had their own European [the author/researcher] who must know the correct techniques and had demonstrated his goodwill. I would ‘open the road of cargo’ for them by contacting God who would send their and my ancestors with goods to Sydney [Australia]. . . . An airstrip would eliminate the labour of carrying (Lawrence, 1964, p.3).

This passage is from Road Belong Cargo (Lawrence, 1964), a classic ethnography of cargo cult activity in Melanesia. It illustrates the characteristic pattern of cargo cults, showing how the believers were convinced that correctly carrying out the cargo ritual would entice the gods into delivering the desired cargo to them, so as to rectify the trading and status inequities between them and their colonizers. The natives’ belief was that the cargo, like all other material goods, would come from their gods if only they could determine the proper ritual by which to appease them. They had seen that the delivery of valuable cargo by the Gods to the Europeans was preceded by predictable actions such as putting on radio headphones and talking into microphones and the use of other symbols they associated with the arrival of the cargo, such as docks, control towers, and radios. The cultists viewed these as rituals and decided that if they carried them out, using the same symbols, the gods would deliver cargo to them, too. So they built wooden "radios" with vines running out the back as antennae, hacked "airstrips" out of the jungle, performed military-style drills of their "troops," and posted lookouts with bamboo "guns" to scan the skies for planes. If a cargo plane appeared but landed elsewhere, they assumed that the Europeans' magic overpowered their own. The cult adherents reasoned that the Europeans knew the correct cargo ritual and just wouldn’t tell them what it was. They rejected the Europeans' explanations of the necessity of manufacturing, commerce, and shipping as stories invented to avoid telling the real secret of the cargo’s origin. Instead, they adjusted their rituals and symbols and tried and tried again.

Though cargo cults may seem at once amusing, amazing, and alien, they provide us with a powerful metaphor for examining the headlong rush of schools into the information age. For the islanders the cargo represented economic independence and equality with their colonizers. Their rituals proved ineffective, however, because they did not take into account the role of complex institutional practices of manufacturing, commerce, and transportation. For educators who wish to reform schools, to bring them into the information age, putting computers in classrooms symbolizes such reform. But such reform is elusive as it too requires hard work and mindful alignment of instructional resources, practices, and beliefs. After the initial step of purchasing computers, it appears as if the desired "cargo" has arrived, but just as the arrival of actual cargo would not have brought about instant transformation of Melanesia culture, a mere computer purchase cannot bring about the realization of the larger goals of educational reform and fully integrated technology use. Just as the islanders found their traditional means were not effective in achieving a novel end, so are computer purchases or other traditional implementation methods insufficient for achieving true educational reform (see Table 1).


Melanesian Cargo Cults

School Technology Cargo Cults



Principal and teachers

Desired end

Increased status and economic advantage

Technology-rich Information Age Schools

Means employed

Traditional rituals such as dance, worship ceremonies

Traditional implementation practices such as purchase orders, "one-shot" professional development.


Did not understand role of institutional factors such as manufacturing, commerce, transportation systems

Did not understand influence of culture and context on current practice nor address how it must change to support new instructional practices

Table 1. Parallels between Melanesian cargo cults and cargo cult-like behavior of schools when implementing technology.

This essay explores the challenges of fully integrating educational computing into reformed classrooms. Using the cargo cult metaphor of genuine desire and ineffective practice, I will turn to sociologist Durkheim's concept of collective representations to analyze why school cultures persist in using traditional implementation means, even when they prove ineffective.

The Vision of Information Age Classrooms

The information age, so named because of the rapid generation of and widespread access to data through electronic means, has gradually come upon us. It is commonplace for users to send digital packets of voice, video, or data across network infrastructure to faxes, computers, telephones, and televisions around the world. These digital tools have redefined our collective notions of communication and information access; we can send and receive information anytime, anywhere.

The technological tools of the information age are both shaping and creating changes in our approaches to work and leisure. Many adults now call or e-mail instead of writing. We carry cellular phones or pagers for round-the-clock availability; we stop work when the computer is down. We talk in terms of joining the global community and the global marketplace. We worry about the rise of information haves and have-nots. We ponder the impact on democracy of home-made web pages and electronic town-meetings. Businesses rush to capture economic success through e-commerce, and newspapers create electronic versions of themselves to allow them to sell customized news reports. For them, the ever more ubiquitous access to technology is a means to a commerce-related end. Businesses grow technological services as a response to the marketplace, to either provide services they hope will be purchased or to save on costs of communication, production, or advertising. The desired end is in sync with traditional business goals and ways of thinking. The means available make it possible to fund and implement the desired technology.

In schools, technological tools, present but far less ubiquitous, are acquired as a part of a vision of information age classrooms. To educational technology leaders in the field of information sciences, an information age classroom means a classroom in which computers provide students with access to information and facilitate the teaching of information access skills (AASL, 1993). They argue that preparing students for the future no longer means that they learn a particular curriculum but that they must become information literate: agile thinkers able to pose questions, find the information they need, distinguish fact from fiction and communicate their knowledge to others.

Educational technologists with roots in the field of instructional technology are also advocates for information age features in schools, contending that just as digital means of information access have redefined our practices at home and at work, so should they revolutionize learning in schools. In the 1970s this goal was linked to drill programs and computer aided instruction (CAI) and in 1980s with LOGO programming; in the 1990s, however, technology tools are symbolic of a focus on students accessing information and constructing knowledge (Newman, 1992; Rieber, 1992; Strommen and Lincoln, 1992; Wagner, 1992). Educational technologists argue that the computer is ideal for the development of students’ thinking skills because it can access, store, sort, and present information quickly in a variety of ways (Jonassen, 1996; Jonassen, Peck & Wilson, 1999). This allows students to access and process information that will extend and add to their individual and unique schemas of knowledge.

In both the information science and instructional technology fields, the use of the computer as a fully integrated tool for students to gather, analyze, and present information is imagined as part of a primarily inquiry-based setting. Combination of information access, computers, and constructivist learning theory together form a more comprehensive vision of curricular and instructional reform than mere computer use. In this conception, computers redefine and redesign what learners do in the classroom setting by encouraging higher levels of thought and creativity, transforming students into active compilers and users of information, and allowing teachers to individualize instruction, teach in an interdisciplinary manner, and employ more authentic assessment (Buckley, 1995; O’Neil, 1995; Peterson & Livingston, 1992; Thornburg, 1995; Wagner, 1992).

Nonetheless, it is important to note computers can be put to use in multiple ways depending on teachers’ and administrators’ curricular choices. Doing so allows us to recognize technology uses by "traditional" educators who have no intent of reforming their classroom. For example, computers can be used as an electronic medium to recall or remediate course content through programmed Individualized Learning Systems (ILSs). Computers and software can also be used as the subject of instruction in classes on word processing or spreadsheets that teach students skills in school work and the workplace. The computer can even be located outside of the instructional realm altogether, sprinkled into classroom activities as a break from routine or as a reward. In addition, computer use can be strictly reserved for teachers use only, to increase their productivity or electronically store worksheets and tests.

Since how technology is integrated with pedagogy can vary greatly in accordance with the teacher’s intentions for the technology (Hadley & Sheingold, 1993; Miller & Olson, 1995; Sandholtz, Ringstaff & Dwyer, 1997; Wiske, 1988)---either reinforcing a traditional approach to instruction or supporting constructivist-based reform---then it is not simply the ubiquitous presence of technology that makes an educational difference. Educational technology visionaries of all stripes agree that educators having commonly held goals for technology is a key requisite for achieving those goals (Collins, 1991; Hadley & Sheingold, 1993; Means, Olson & Singh, 1995; Newman, 1992; Perelman, 1988). Thus, the extent to which technological tools are present in schools and the nature of their fully integrated use can be viewed as a consequence of a school culture's core ideas about teaching and learning.

The Challenge of the Information Age in Schools

K-12 educators across the country are in fact emphasizing computer and network purchases, and students' computing experiences and skills are essential components of modern day schools. Spending by K12 public schools for hardware, software, and networks in 1998 are estimated at $8 B (Anderson, 1999). The number of teachers of middle-school-age students who report using computers frequently in their classes during the 1997-98 school year range from 12% of science teachers and 16% of math teachers to 27% of English teachers (Becker, 1999). But with a tool as flexible as technology, it is necessary to examine all these data more closely, for hardware purchases and computer use are only a part of the preparation needed by students for the information age. Are schools also embracing the information age in the way reform-oriented educational technologists have in mind? And are the more transformative ideas viewed as essential by information age proponents---information literacy skills and pedagogy supportive of student construction of knowledge---also being incorporated as swiftly into schools?

These questions cut to the heart of technology use in schools. Traditionalists and reformists alike may welcome technology in the schools, but for different ends. To traditionalists, the purpose may tend toward automation: to speed up and systematize instruction, increase productivity, and provide variety in or rewards from the daily routine. To reformers, the purpose is innovation: to redefine and redesign the most basic elements of schools. Proponents in both categories would argue that bringing computers into the classroom is a symbolic step in the right direction but the ends to which these were put would differ greatly. While a few key staff in a school can coordinate purchases so the presence of computers is prevalent in classrooms, only through a school-wide shared vision for how they are to be employed can they produce the desired effect. If the desired use of technology is innovative, it presents even a greater challenge, as public K-12 schools have a consistent record of resisting sweeping changes to their purposes, organization, and instructional methods (Cuban, 1993). Historically, schools have rejected or altered technologies that have been announced as revolutionary and transformative, extending as far back to the introduction of Thomas Edison’s film projector in the 1910s, and including radio and television (Cuban, 1986). Such a record should be sobering to promoters of current technologies.

The literature on policy implementation and school change in schools during the last decade has documented the often bureaucratic, hierarchical conditions of school systems and their effect upon the roles of administrators and teachers, and this recognition that traditional school systems and staff roles are inadequate to adopt, implement, and sustain innovations has catalyzed discussion about what sort of school environment is necessary for innovations to take hold (Elmore & McLaughlin, 1988; Fullan, 1991; Odden, 1991). These discussions usually address two major elements of restructuring schools and implementing innovations: 1) design, the alignment of a system's resources, including personnel, curriculum, procedures, and policies, and 2) definition, administrators' and teachers' beliefs and cognitions about their roles, teaching, and learning. Fullan (1991) refers to these as top-down and bottom-up approaches, Elmore (1982) as forward and backward mapping, Holly (1991) as systematic congruence between the whole-school and classroom levels, and Jacobs (1997) stresses the need to connect teachers’ context and cognition. Tyack and Cuban (1995) describe innovations as resources that teachers can adapt to their local conditions and personal style. Lieberman and Miller (1991) note that teachers rethinking curriculum and instruction, and administrators creating new structures for how the school is run, are two important building blocks of restructuring.

The design approach to school reform has long been taken in the fields of policy study and of organizational and change theory. In the last decade, however, writers in these fields have increasingly emphasized how educators’ working definitions of teaching and learning affect the decisions they make and their day-to-day activities. These writers describe educators' working definitions, beliefs, and cognition as culture and emphasize that understanding culture is the key to how educators might begin to think differently about their work. Some authors go as far as to describe school change as culture building (Lieberman & Miller, 1991) or as re-culturing (Fullan, 1991).

A Cultural Approach to Understanding a School's Reaction to Innovation

The study of cultures is the milieu of sociologists and anthropologists, even if they differ as to what exactly culture is. One of the earliest sociologists, Emile Durkheim, provided the field with theory of culture that can integrate the design and definition approaches and can be usefully applied to how educators think about their work and react when faced with implementing an innovation such as educational technology. Durkheim used the term collective representations to describe the influence of a group’s understanding of itself on the social forms and structures it creates (1915/1965; 1925/1961). Collective representations are a group’s social forms, including their symbol systems, myths and rituals, behavior norms, use of time and space and social structures that show who they are. In other words, a culture’s members arrange their social forms and structures, such as schools, classrooms, the teaching profession, and educational technology, in order to act out and symbolize how they understand the way things should be.

Once expressed in social forms and structures, collective representations reinforce the culture’s language and behavior through the logic that the way things are illustrate the way they should be. Thus, Durkheim explains, collective representations serve as templates for thought and behavior, binding the culture together and reminding its members of the concepts and ideas that define them and make them who they are. In this way they both regulate and serve as the means for group members to understand one another. Collective representations thus simultaneously embody two recursive processes: how a group illustrates its socially constructed definitions and expressions of itself through socially constructed designs and methods, and how the collective’s definitions and designs impose upon an individual’s thought, talk and behavior, thereby norming individuals into the group.

To communicate the strength of this normative influence, Durkheim borrows words from religion such as moral, myth, ritual, and sacred, though he applied them to secular as well as religious activities. He uses the word moral to describe how each culture has a "system of rules of action that predetermine conduct. They state how one must act in given situations; and to behave properly is to obey conscientiously (Durkheim, 1925/1961, p. 24)." Thus, what is moral includes whatever norms (i.e., etiquette, rules, and laws) a culture follows while seeking to maintain the thought and behavior equilibrium that holds them together. Durkheim expands the meaning of moral beyond standards of "right" behavior to include more mundane social customs such as lining up to take your turn and the formal legal codes against theft.

Durkheim notes that some social objects, talk, or behavior were charged with the culture’s moral authority to the point they were sacred, including referred to sacred objects (symbols), sacred talk (myths), and sacred practices (rituals). Together, they constitute the essential aspects of a culture and continuity in social life. Shared concepts and beliefs strengthen the sense of affinity among group members and create forums for regular expression of their collective concepts and beliefs. Individuals express group membership through employing the norms of the group. But a culture's morals are not immutable; they can change, albeit slowly, when cultural innovations are introduced and individuals move, specialize, come together in new ways, or form new social structures.

Durkheim concludes that the moral ties which bind a group are neither an issue of dependence nor freedom. People still have agency and can act outside the social norm although they probably will not if they continue to consider themselves members of that group. By regulating their own behavior according to the cultural norms, they both acknowledge the others in the group and strengthen the shared foundations of the culture.

The work of sociologist Erving Goffman and anthropologist Mary Douglas illustrates how we may appropriately apply Durkheim's ideas about large societies to smaller groups such as schools. Goffman’s metaphor of "frame" as a basic building block of social analysis work provides a theoretical bridge from Durkheim’s attention to ritual behavior to an emphasis on context and social interaction.. In Frame Analysis (1974) Goffman explains the dual influence of physical and social contexts as a series of embeddings. These embeddings, layered like the peels of an onion, synergistically provide actors with references like talk, cues, and props through which they may understand the encounter. Goffman calls this "inevitably relational dimension of meaning" (p. xiii) a frame. The frame is of primary importance for organizing behavior; actors recognize and reference various frameworks of understanding by social and physical clues within the frame that can serve as anchors for the frame, such as certain kinds of talk or physical boundaries, or as brackets for the frame, such as the ringing of a bell starting class. What we recognize as an individual actor's style is their consistency in referencing their unique compilation of these resources, which are all a part of their description of themselves as an administrative director, a curriculum specialist, a principal, or a "constructivist" or "traditional" teacher.

Because frames encompass a shared understanding of a situation, they also carry rules of behavior for the participants. When individuals follow rules of behavior (or what Durkheim would call moral representations), they are not only agreeing with a particular framing of a situation, but they are also reinforcing their commitment to a specific image of self and to a culture. Management of personal behavior is, in effect, a communication with the group that reaffirms both how individuals will be perceived and their role within the group. When group members respond accordingly to the image an individual presents, it is an acknowledgment, acceptance, and reinforcement of that culture. For example, when a teacher’s colleagues respond in a professional manner, they are accepting that individual’s presentation of self as a teaching professional. When teachers respond to administrators in a subservient manner, they are accepting that individual’s presentation of self as an authority figure.

Goffman’s concept of frame points out the importance of the physical and social contexts surrounding an individual as features that interact with his or her role. The frame individuals refer to orders their role and behavior and, in so doing, reveals the meaning they are assigning to a situation; managing one's behavior according to a framework in turn it reinforces a particular social reality. This explanation helps explain the complex range of contextual elements referenced when a teacher steps up to the front of a classroom and "acts like a teacher," or when an administrator "acts like a leader" at meetings.

In How Institutions Think (1986), Mary Douglas, a social anthropologist, reiterates Durkheim’s notion of the social basis of cognition (collective representations) and then shows how cultures codify in institutions the sacred aspects of their collective representations. By treating institutions as a "legitimized social grouping" (p.46), she emphasizes how hierarchic assumptions undergird institutional leaders’ versions of the "right" way to do their work. As ideas, events, or crises work their way through an institution, the assessment and treatment of them illustrates the classificatory logic at work. She describes institutional procedure as a thinking system, a fact that becomes masked over time as members unquestioningly follow institutional procedures (Durkheim’s rituals), thus letting the institution think for them.

Implications for Studying Educational Technology in Schools

Using the concept of collective representations to analyze the workplace culture of a group of professionals (i.e., a member-recognizable group who share norms, such as the educators in one district or school building) helps us to bridge the design and the definition approaches taken by the recent literature in policy implementation and school change. It invites us to view the organization of a school, including the purchase, placement, and use of technology, as an expression of its members' ideas about "the ways things should be," including the roles teachers and students should play, what constitutes learning, and the purpose of schooling. To capture the resistance of schools to innovations such as technology, historians of education use concepts such as "the grammar of schooling" to explain how instructional methods and organization become taken-for-granted and "real schools" to describe how one's own school experiences create expectations of what school should be like (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Durkheim's theory of collective representations reveals that these phenomena are more than just habit, that what educators do in schools is tied to deeply held and socially constructed concepts of teaching and learning that are reinforced through the design and organization of schools. If, for instance, school and classroom design and organization are not changed to accommodate technology during technology implementation, we can deduce that the assumptions that generated the unyielding design and organization in the first place also have not changed.

A Durkheimian approach provides us with a way of reframing why a culture, whether a cargo cult or school where educators hope to integrate technology into the classroom, might use ineffective practices: the social forms, structures, policies, and procedures a group employs convey the shared foundations that are important for the maintenance and expression of that culture. That is, the definition of a group held by its members and its organization and methods are intertwined. In a school the use of time, space and resources, administrator's expectations, and curriculum and assessment practices all communicate what those educators believe about teaching and learning and thus how teachers and students should behave. Durkheim's conception of morals reminds us that the actions of group members simultaneously represent and reinforce their group membership and interdependence. "Proper" student and teacher behavior doesn’t just obey the collective representations of that culture, it embodies and reinforces them. Thus "the way we do things around here" serves as a ritual-like enactment of collectively held assumptions. Faced with a novel desired end, the means a culture employs towards it may prove ineffective but represent deeply embedded, collectively held ideas about the best way to proceed.

Viewing culture as collective representations, then, reframes ineffective practice in a way that is more generative of possible root causes and solutions than most other explanations. It is not as simple as "educators just don't 'get' it," " teachers' old habits die hard, so we'll just wait for them to retire," "teachers are afraid to lose control," or the always-popular "change is hard." There may be a lack of understanding or a reluctance to abandon methods that have worked in the past, but individuals' reactions must be interpreted in relation to the self-perpetuating design of the organization and the collective of which they define themselves a part.

Because information age classrooms are inquiry-based, with an emphasis on authentic, real-world-based activities, curriculum is often more interdisciplinary in nature and assessment more performance oriented than is the case in most schools. Instead of an emphasis on content, the purpose of assignments may be equally, or even mostly, related to process skills. To institute these ideas would mean considerable change in teachers' thinking and planning processes. It would require developing new measures of progress, new routines for managing their and their students' work, and new unit and lesson plans requiring locating and adapting new resources for student use. These changes would, in turn, shift the role of the teacher to what is sometimes described as the student as worker and teacher as coach (or perhaps as teacher as guide on the side). Operationalizing these new roles is complex, requiring teachers to rethink every interaction in their classroom. How much direction do I give to the students? When do I step in and help? When am I teaching students to take responsibility for their learning, and when I am shirking mine as a teacher? And, because the teacher's role is really a partnership with students and parents, these partners must also recognize and accept the implications of these new roles for them and make the necessary shifts. In short, the collective---teachers, administrators, students, and parents---must all come to a shared understanding of any new approach to teaching and learning.

Even when the parties do desire to redefine roles and responsibilities, the design of the school and classroom can present a passive resistance to change. The school schedule might discourage interdisciplinary work. The report card form and its distribution schedule may discourage performance assessment and long-term projects. The need to be accountable to the public may emphasize standardized test results at the same time teachers are seeking to create a new balance between students' learning of content and process skills. If the teachers' work environment consists mostly of classroom time in contact with students, teachers can be prevented from talking with one another and with parents to work out these new methods and understandings.

When applied to schools where an innovation such as new technology is being implemented , then, Durkheim’s ideas are helpful for the rich questions they generate. When information age goals and tools are added to administrators' list of things to operationalize, how does the organizational structure impact what they are able to do and the resources at their disposal? When technology is added to a teacher’s pedagogy, thereby reordering time, space, interactions, and roles, how do relationships change? How are the obligations and boundaries of these new relationships reflected in new myths, rituals, or norms? How do changes in the way things are done illustrate the changes in what the culture thinks is sacred? How do cultures decide which uses of technology are sacred and which are not?


Anthropologists studying in Melanesia found that members of cargo cults believed that performing a ritual for the gods was an appropriate means to use for acquiring cargo, whatever its form or content. Cargo cults lasted months or years depending on the leader and followers and their patience in waiting for the cargo. If one cargo cult was unsuccessful, it was not incongruous for the same group of people to implore different gods and improvise different rituals in a new cargo cult variation. Thus the essence of the cargo cult metaphor is "the tragic relationship. . . between genuine desire and ineffective practice"(Lindstrom, 1993, p.186).

When in pursuit of educational reform via the implementation of technology-rich information age classrooms, educators sometimes appear like cargo cultists, seeking reform by performing the ritual of acquiring computers, without engaging in the collective redesign of the organization. In the end, the desired goal, information age school reform eludes them. An understanding of collective representations provides us a way out of this self-defeating delusion by reminding us that the means a culture uses to pursue its ends are collectively arrived at and deeply embedded in the design of an organization. To deeply and meaningfully integrate technology use into schools will require the participation of the entire school culture. It will require the full support of teachers, administrators, parents, and students to redesign the school and redefine its purpose and the roles teachers, students, and technology are to play. It takes a whole village to implement an innovation.


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